How Many Cooking Verbs Can I Perform for You In the Pursuit of Lamb Biryani?**

lamb biryani made with brown rice

Hello, lamb biryani. You exhaust me, and yet I love you so...

***Voting Is Open*** Please click here to vote for my entry, and go to the Contestants' Page to explore and vote for other amazing entries!

This is my post for Challenge #2 in Project Food Blog.  Thanks to all of you who voted to help me advance; I truly appreciate it! Voting opens Monday, September 27. I'll post a voting link tomorrow in the hope that you'll vote for me.

I tasted my first Indian food in 1990, and I fell in love.  It's surprising to me how readily I embraced the cuisine, especially since I was raised on a diet of straight-up Amurkin food spiced up only occasionally with an Amurkinized spaghetti and meatballs or a mild chili.  So, when some friends invited me to try a new Indian place, they might as well have said, "Hey, let's have Martian tonight."  I went along anyway, hoping that I would survive the experience.  First up, crispy/crackly papadam served with a mint-cilantro chutney and some beautiful hot pickled onion.  I swooned.  Plump lamb samosas with tamarind sauce? I might have moaned with pleasure, just a little.  For dinner, my friends suggested the chicken tikka masala, and I simply wanted to bathe in it.  It was Quite the Evening.  Give me a moment, won't you?

I went to the All Around the World Market and was met by a dizzying array of spice-y goodness.

I shopped.

All Around the World Market

I found saffron stored in a wee locked cabinet.

Now I know that CTM isn't even really a traditional Indian dish.  That it was thrown together to satisfy the English need for Gravy during India's long stint as a British Colony.   It doesn't make it any less wonderful, though.

lamb biryani ingredients

I arranged.

But I'm not here to talk about chicken tikka masala.  I'm here to talk about the Indian dish that has its own space on menus in Indian restaurants:  Biryani.  The name intrigues me, and I find that it's derived from a Persian word meaning (depending on who you ask) fried-before-cooking or Yummy.

It's touted as the meal of celebration and the dish of the Rich and Special.  And while it's definitely the former, it has its roots in a humble rice and goat meal that was cooked underground, like the original baked beans in the US.  Except way older.

Swad brand Brown Basmati Rice

I marveled.

Because I try to follow rules All the Time, I delved into the history of biryani, and I came out with a head ache.  Seriously.  While everyone agrees that there is a Layering Process, some folks say to fry the rice before cooking; other folks say no.  Many people on the Hinternets exhorted me to Always use rice as the bottom layer.  An Indian chef told me--via video--to slap some raw marinated chicken in the bottom of the pan.

Fine.  I popped an Excedrin and read on. There are two main types of biryani:  raw and cooked.  Don't worry, though.  I'm not going to make you eat biryani tartar.  What these labels designate is how the meat is handled before being layered.  Some use raw meat.  Some use cooked meat.  The whole trick of biryani, no matter whose recipe you follow, is to make sure that the rice is cooked just so--with all the grains separate.

There should be no clumping in biryani.

It seems to be a cardinal rule.  To follow this rule, you have to undercook the rice by a certain degree and either a) have enough liquid in your raw marinated meat layer to finish cooking the rice perfectly while making sure your meat cooks all the way through or b) add a judicious amount of other liquid to ensure Rice Perfection at the end of the cooking process. "Is there a third option?"  I asked the Hinternets, and the answer was a resounding no.  Awesome.

I shifted gears for a minute and read up on rose water and kewra water.  Some biryanis Contain these Items, and I wanted to use them in my version.  Rose water is a by product of distilling rose oil for perfumes.  It smells like you just fell face first into your grandmother's bed of Damask Roses.  Kewra water is made from the kewra, or screw pine, flower.  It is also very fragrant, but has more of an herbal edge.  Americans tend to use ingredients for their flavor.  Indians like to use ingredients both for flavor and for aroma.  And since the two are closely linked, it makes sense.  The rose water and kewra water are both there to add flowery notes to the earthy, smoky, green perfume of the biryani.

When I actually started looking at recipes, and there was so much variation among them that I chose to take the Interesting Parts of several of them and combine them into one Frankenbiryani.  Because I love you.  And because, at its heart, biryani is all about technique. And you guys know how much I love a good technique.  Teach me a recipe and I eat for a day; teach me a technique, and I eat for the rest of my life. I'm pretty sure that's a real saying.

So, without further Ado, I present unto you my Franken Lamb Biryani.

My Lamb Biryani, Representative of Tons of Biryani Techniques*

For the Lamb

  • 2 pounds lamb, cut into small pieces.  I used chops and saved the bones for lamb stock.
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • about 1 1/2 cups plain, full fat yogurt
  • 2" piece of cinnamon stick
  • 2 black cardamom pods
  • 4 green cardamom pods, or about 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom seed
  • 2 Tablespoons fennel seed
  • 1 Tablespoon cumin seed
  • 1 Tablespoon coriander seed
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 Tablespoon Balti spice blend
  • 1 Tablespoon onion oil
  • 2 Tablespoons ghee (store bought or homemade)

    I melted my butter, brought it to a boil and strained it once the milk solids had fallen to the bottom of the pan and had started to turn golden brown and delicious.

    I clarified.

Toast all the whole spices in a dry cast iron skillet until fragrant, about 4 minutes over medium heat.

toasting coriander. black cardamom, fennel, cumin and cinnamon stick

I toasted.

Let the spices cool, and then grind them in a spice grinder or dedicated coffee grinder.

After toasting, I ground the spices

I ground.

Salt and pepper the meat and put it in a large zip top bag.

Mix the ground spices with the turmeric, Balti and yogurt and pour into the bag with the lamb.  Press out all the air and smoosh the bag around until the meat is evenly coated.  Let marinate for 1 to 1 1/2 hours in the fridge.

Heat your skillet over medium heat,  Add oil and ghee, and chuck the lamb and marinade in.

After marinating, I cooked the meat, pouring off the excess marinade and meat juices and reserving for later.

I sauteed.

Cook until the lamb has released a lot of its juices and the marinade has thinned out quite a bit.  Carefully pour off the marinade, reserving for later.

Continue to cook the meat until it is cooked all the way through.  If any marinade is leftover in the pan, pour that off and reserve.

For the Onions

  • 2 medium onions, cut in half down the equator and then sliced thin, longitudinally
  • salt, to taste
  • enough neutral vegetable oil to cover the bottom of your cast iron skillet by about 1/4"

Season the onions with salt.

Heat the pan over medium heat.  Add the oil and heat until it shimmers.

Fry the onions over medium heat until starting to turn golden.

fried onions

I fried.

Turn up to medium-high and continue to fry until deeply caramelized.

Remove the onions to some paper towels to drain.  If you have any onions that got a little too dark, pick them out.  The darkest they should be is a deep mahogany.

Reserve the onion oil.

For the Rice

  • 3 cups brown basmati rice
  • water to cover by 2"
  • a pinch of saffron threads
  • water to cover the rice by 3"
  • salt, to taste
  • about 10 black peppercorns
  • 2 Tablespoons ghee
  • 2 Tablespoons onion oil
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 4 green cardamom pods, or 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • 1" piece of cinnamon stick

Steep the saffron in a couple of tablespoons of very hot water for ten minutes.

I soaked the brown basmati rice in weak saffron water for 45 minutes.

I soaked.

Put the rice in a large pot.  Pour over the saffron water and enough cool water to cover the rice by 2 inches.  Let soak for 45 minutes.

Drain and rinse the rice and put back in the pan.

After soaking, I boiled the rice with saffron, ghee, reserved onion oil and salt for fifteen minutes.

I boiled.

Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a full rolling boil for about fifteen minutes.

The rice should be soft on the outside but crunchy on the inside.  You should be able to see a thin halo of translucent cooked rice around an opaque core of uncooked rice.  Drain thoroughly.

For the Aroma Waters (my favorite part)

Sweet Aroma Water

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • about 10 saffron threads
  • 3 green cardamom pods or about 1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • a splash each of rose water and kewra water (both are optional but add a lovely aromatic quality to the dish)

Warm milk to just steaming.  Toss in the saffron threads and cardamom.

steeping saffron and cardamom in heated milk before adding rose water and kewra water.

I steeped some more.

Let steep until room temperature.

When cool, add a splash each of rose water and kewra water.

Savory Aroma Water

  • 1 cup water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 black cardamom
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 2" piece of cinnamon stick
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed

Put all ingredients in a small sauce pan.

steeping savory aroma water

I steeped

Bring to a boil and then let simmer for 20 minutes.  Strain and cool to room temperature.

Additional Garnish

  • 1 bunch of fresh mint
  • 1 bunch of fresh cilantro

Putting It Together.  Finally.

Preheat oven to 400F.

Brush a thin layer of ghee on the bottom and up the sides of your Baking Vessel.

There's the parcooked rice, neatly layered into the bottom of the pan with a bit of each of the aroma waters.

I layered...

Put 1/3 of the par-cooked rice in Said Vessel, spreading it evenly.

Sprinkle on about 2 Tablespoons each of the aroma waters.

Next came the lamb and some of the reserved marinade.

...and layered...

Add 1/2 the lamb and drizzle over a couple of tablespoons of the reserved cooked marinade.

Then on went some fried onions and a handful each of chopped mint and cilantro.

...and layered.

Add a handful of fried onions and a heavy sprinkle of chopped mint and cilantro.

Repeat the rice-waters-meat-marinade-onion-herb layers once again, and finish up with the last 1/3 of the rice.

Sprinkle on a little more of the aroma waters, a bit of onion and chopped herbs.

I mixed about 1/2 cup of flour with a little water until I got a sticky dough.  Then, I pressed it all around the seam where the lid met the pot.

I entombed.

Seal the lid on the cooking vessel with the flour-water dough.

Bake at 400F for ten minutes, then reduce heat to 275F and bake an additional twenty minutes.

Remove Vessel from oven.  Curse the day you decided to seal the pan with dough and chip it off with a dinner knife.  Just concentrate on the seam between lid and pan.  You can soak the rest off later.  Curse again.

I used a knife to gently mix everything together so I wouldn't smoosh the rice.

I mixed.

Let the fragrant steam hit you in the face, realizing that you couldn't smell it before because of the dough seal.  I mean, I forgot all about the cursing when the nutty-floral-earthy-smoky-meaty-herbal aroma reached my nose.  Amazing.  Simply amazing.

Gently fluff up the rice and mix the layers together with something that won't smash your rice.  I used a knife.

Serve with another sprinkle of chopped herbs, some raita and maybe some lovely crusty naan.

I plated, garnished with a bit of chopped herbs, mixed up a quick raita and took this lovely photo.  All while talking to my friend on the phone.

I plated.

Oh yeah, I forgot.  I also Ate.  And the flavor?  Very complex yet very subtle.  No hot spiciness, just a wonderful melange of flavors, textures and aromas.  Perfection.  How about those rice grains?  Any clumps?  Nope!  Might've been beginners' luck, but I'll take it.

Bonus--A Quick Raita

  • 1 cup plain, full fat yogurt
  • a large handful of seeded and finely diced cucumber
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a handful of chopped mint and cilantro
Just whisk all the ingredients together.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  That's it.

I whisked.

Whisk together.  Let sit in the fridge for half an hour to let the flavors blend.

*Biryani Techniques/Ingredients borrowed from India Curry, Show Me the Curry, iFood, and VahRehVah

**I lost count.  At least 20.  You're welcome.


    • says

      Thanks! It was a lot of work, and The Beloved wasn’t even here to clean up behind me! I’m off to visit your corner of the world–looking forward to reading everyone’s posts and voting, voting, voting! 🙂

  1. cindy h says

    Mmmm…!!! Even more tantalizing than I expected!! …what time is dinner?

    Good luck in the voting. You’ve most certainly earned my vote~!!

  2. says

    I love your blog. what a great post in tone and content. I have much thought about biryani. It is actually the subject of part of my pfb2010 profile (though chicken.) I have tried both raw and cooked. I am now more of a cooked, layered, baked in a coffin type.

  3. says

    We made lamb vindaloo and ate a ton of it last night… But now I’m totally craving lamb biryani tonight! This looks fabulous 🙂 Good luck!

    • says

      I really should have said no to the dough seal, but according to one of the “rules of biryani” that I read, I was “emulating handi,” that are apparently sealed until you crack them open w/a mallet. Not wanting to bash my nice Dutch oven To Death, I just ended up cursing a lot! 😆

  4. says

    Love the aroma waters – what a great name! Props for saving bones for stock-making, too. Looks fantastic! If I wasn’t already planning on cooking Indian this week, I would be now.

  5. Dianne says

    How you have set my mouth-a-watering! Grew up with many lamb dishes (Dad was from France but grew up in Morocco) and my family loves it when lamb is the main dish. I definitely will add this recipe to my recipe box. 🙂

  6. says

    Whoa…It took me quite a while to find the itsy-bitsy “comments” clicky-hooey. You’ve spiffed up around here and now I can’t find anything. OUCH! I jsut bumped into the coffee table.

    My favorite part of this whole post was, ” Curse the day you decided to seal the pan with dough and chip it off with a dinner knife.”

  7. says

    Oh, groovy! Thanks so much for braving the new furniture arrangement in the dark and all! I appreciate the vote, friend.

    I started with a wee tapered icing spatula, bent the poo out of it, and switched to the knife. Hence, the cursing! 😉

    • says

      The rose water lived at the All Around the World Market–an Indian/Pakistani market in Raleigh. I think you could also find it in some Mediterranean markets and maybe even at a weird little Harry Potter-ish type pharmacy! 🙂 That flour and water business is for the birds, but I guess it makes for good reading. It certainly made for some good laughs! Next time, I’m sealing the pot w/some foil and calling it a day! 😆

  8. says

    All I could think when I saw the pot sealed with flour and water dough was “OMG. That’s NEVER coming off!” So glad it was worth it! You have my vote.

  9. Huda says

    Hi!! Welcome to the mainstay of most Hyderabadi festive occasions, (dun dun dunnn DUNNN) Biryani!

    I know you’ve a headache from all the researching you’ve been doing but bear with me here. When my mum taught me how to make biryani, she mentioned that one thing was crucial .. just one. Make sure the parboiled rice doesn’t lose it’s steam when you’re layering it. Which means, doing it on the double. Double quick layering. Very scary for a 17 year old girl learning to cook with a woman who had asbestos for hands. My 3 cents 😛

  10. says

    I will be forever grateful that you distilled all those myriad biryani recipes into this one delicious post and dish! Perhaps I could be enticed to postpone our move overseas and take a detour to your neighborhood with a promise that this might be served for dinner . . . ?

    Congratulations on your well-deserved advancement in Project Food Blog and I eagerly await your next entry! Just voted!

  11. says

    Oh Yum! I didn’t have a collar of flour-water paste/cement around my computer as I read this, so The Aromas came right through! And made me swoon! I’m not sure I’d be willing to do all that work, or be able to find all those exotic sounding spices/herbs here in Redneck Central, but I’d be willing to come to your house!

    I particularly enjoyed the cursing…. Reminded me of childbirth, and how you completely forget about the pain and the ugly thoughts you had about your husband, as soon as you see the wee bairn!!

  12. says

    Oh my, trust me. I’d look forward to that fragrant layering of amazing flavors hitting me in the face, too. Love the “play-by” of the recipe — one that I swear I’ll try. I love exploring other culture’s classic dishes and had to laugh about the dough paste seal. I once came across a middle eastern dish that required a seal like that, but I passed. Good luck to you on the project! You’ve got another of my votes!

  13. Angela says

    You didnt have to drain out the saffron water with the rice know that dont you? Considering how very expensive it is, you could use it once and that too for the final sprinkling after all the caramelized onions are layered… you sprinkle the precious liquid (saffron steeped in milk) and then entomb. Ha Ha! loved the description. For all the work you did .. kudos to you. Amazing you ploughed on. Im sure you were rewarded with a drool befitting dish. Good luck on your next venture in Indian cooking. Angela


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